My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

Note: this sermon was preached this morning at Custer Road UMC, continuing our sermon series for Lent: The Seven Words from the Cross.

We’re continuing in our sermon series on Jesus’ final words from the Cross. Last week we considered “Behold your Son/Behold your Mother,” words where Jesus creates the community of believers we understand as the church today—folk defined by their love for Jesus, each other, and the world. Today everything shifts: tone, the scene around the cross. Whereas John had Mary and the disciple whom Jesus loved and a couple of women near the cross, in Mark everyone who is near Jesus either tortures him physically or emotionally. The same crowds who excitedly welcome his entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday now shout hate and insults at him.

Jesus turns his attention away from the noise of the moment to the heavens. He cries out to God in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They are words of desperation, of loneliness, of grief. Before his crucifixion Jesus was surrounded by people. Now his friends are gone. When he was baptized he heard these words from his Father: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” At his Transfiguration on the mountain the disciples heard this pronouncement from the heavens: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” But now here, at the Cross, there is no voice. Jesus’ words are met with divine silence. He dies alone.

Have you ever experienced loneliness? Can you remember a time when you were in need of companionship, a comforting word, someone to assure you everything would be ok, and you only found silence? Friends and family let us down all the time—and we let them down too—we are busy, distracted, worried about our own stuff. But what happens when we feel distant from God? How do we keep faith when God is slow to respond to our needs?

There is a tradition within the Bible that speaks to such a condition: the tradition of lament. The best place to explore this tradition is the Book of Psalms. Fully 1/3 of the 150 psalms are from this tradition. The psalmist appeals to God in the midst of a challenging situation—grief, illness, despair, loneliness—not a forum for whining but an invitation to God to address the situation. Psalm 13 is a good example of lament:

To the leader. A Psalm of David.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
   How long will you hide your face from me? 
How long must I bear pain* in my soul,
   and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
   Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 
and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
   my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. 

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
   my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 
I will sing to the Lord,
   because he has dealt bountifully with me.

It is impossible to know the specifics of every psalmist’s situation—and honestly it does not matter. We sense the psalmist’s desperation, loneliness, and impatience. But there is also a sense of hope. God has been faithful in the past; God will deliver us again.

One of the most challenging aspects of a growing faith is what to do when things go the opposite of how they should. So much of the messages we hear are positive—so when we experience negativity it is met with feelings of guilt or shame. In the social media world of Facebook and Twitter, where every picture features an ideal situation, a warm smile, a winning goal, a successful presentation, our failures do not measure up. I am not sure how many posts I recall of the kid’s honorable mention in the Science Fair or the high schooler’s 73 on the math exam or missing out on others’ expectations. It has been said that one of the most significant challenges the church faces, particularly North American Christianity, is a denial about the trials we face. All we seem to hear, and want to hear, is positive: Overcome. Outlast. Win. Victory. Confidence. What happens to our faith when we do not finish first at the end of every single race? I found this great quote from legendary biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann: “The church is not meant to be the happiest place on earth. The church is meant to be the most honest place on earth.” The lament tradition of the Psalms invites honesty into our relationship with God. Sometimes we are disappointed. We feel abandoned. We are hurt. And not just by other men and women. Sometimes we feel that way about God.

Over the years, I have found many Christians’ understanding of God to fall in one of two categories: God is either too big or too small. God is too big when our problems and needs are insignificant compared to our seven billion neighbors on this planet. God does not have time to meet us where we are because children are abused or starving; marriages are ending; wars are raging; poverty is rampant. God is out attending to the really important things so we keep our own needs secret. We miss out on the opportunity to deepen our faith because God is too big. Or sometimes God is too small. God is too small when God is not able to address our needs. We’ve limited God to an hour-long encounter one morning a week. When there is a time change or it’s spring break or it’s raining or the music is wrong or the sermon is too long or whatever else nags us. Faith for the God is too small crowd is one more thing on an already too long list. We easily lose faith not because God is too busy, but because God isn’t important enough.

Well, here is the good news: like the porridge in the Three Bears story, God is neither too big nor too small. God is just right. The antidote for our condition is the tradition of lament. This long tradition trusts God enough to express vulnerability, fear, even anger toward the Lord of all creation. The lament tradition fearlessly challenges God when things do not go according to plan, in sure and certain faith that God will act in ways that sustain and improve our lives. We cry out: “WHY?” to God without fear of reprisal or being ignored. The lament tradition invites the believer to pursue our relationship with God to its fullest. This is what we hear from Jesus on his Cross. The God he loves—the God who loves Jesus—is neither too big nor too small for Jesus’ words.

“My God my God why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cries out, louder than the mockery of the crowds, louder than the taunting words of the criminals crucified on his left and right. These are words that are at the same time his own and from the collection of psalms of lament. Psalm 22 is the most well-known of the lament psalms because of Jesus quotes it as he cries out to God. “My God  my God why have you forsaken me” is the first verse of Psalm 22. Scholars debate whether Jesus quotes only the first verse on its own, or if by quoting the first verse he invokes the entire psalm. What is clear is that Jesus knows and understands the lament tradition well—before his time of suffering—and he drew upon that history in time of greatest need. Before we suffer, before we doubt, before God disappoints us, we would do well to own the act of lament.

Mark and Matthew even extend Psalm 22’s impact on the crucifixion story with the note that the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothing by casting lots—a direct correlation to Psalm 22 verse 19. Despite the isolation, the feeling of abandonment, the agony of his suffering, Jesus does not lose ultimate hope in God. His faith in God is so strong at his weakest moment because of the authenticity of the relationship. Jesus knows the end of Psalm 22, although he does not voice it from the Cross:

For he did not despise or abhor
   the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
   but heard when I cried to him. 

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
   my vows I will pay before those who fear him. 
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
   those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
   May your hearts live for ever! 

All the ends of the earth shall remember
   and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
   shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
   and he rules over the nations. 

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
   before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
   and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
   future generations will be told about the Lord, 
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
   saying that he has done it.

“My God my God why have you forsaken me?” are words expressive of Jesus’ abandonment by God. The closeness he once felt with the Father is gone, the words proclaimed from heaven at his baptism and Transfiguration distant memories. Now there is only silence. But Jesus is faithful: he still uses the words My God, my God. When our faith falters, when we find ourselves living the psalms of lament, may we, like Jesus and so many others across the millennia, remember the ultimate goodness of the Lord. May we find rest in a relationship with God so grounded in honesty and trust that even when God seems distant we still know we are his children.

During his temptation by Satan in the wilderness, the tempter begins each test with these words: “If you are the Son of God…” At the crucifixion, the crowds shout at Jesus: “If you are the Son of God…” Standing near the cross is a Roman soldier. Shortly after Jesus cries out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” he dies. This centurion, Mark says, responds in a remarkable way: “Seeing that he died in this way he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God.’” What about Jesus’ death invokes such a reaction from a non-believer? Jesus’ faith, his confidence, his knowing beyond the present moment that his life with God is secure forever. God is neither too big nor too small to totally abandon Jesus in his weakest moment. So it is with us: God is neither too big or too small for our own brokenness. God is able to take our grief, our disappointment, our doubt, our anxiety, even our questions. Just as Jesus’ scars did not disappear after his resurrection, so our lament is not easily hidden from God.

Over the years I have returned to the closing words of Chapter 8 of Romans over and over again. I have read them bedside at hospitals, quoted them over the phone to those in a faith crisis, mentioned them in countless holy conversations:

 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

[Listen closely here: Paul quotes from Psalm 44—a lament!]

‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
   we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!